We were all poor them days! But what enjoyment we got out of life!
Elizabeth’s grandmother, having regretted sending her daughter to work at the mill at twelve, later warned her against making the same mistake with her own children: ‘Never mind brass, Clara. Give thy childer a good education. That’s far better for ‘em, nor a few pounds i’t’ bank’ (Rignall,52). This is how Elizabeth was raised. This is how she then went on to be a teacher, valuing the beauty of literature, dramatics and music over finance and proving that culture is classless.
Born in London in 1894, Elizabeth’s home life was happy and stable, with her Salvationist parents being ‘admirably suited to each other in temperament’ (Rignall,57). Although her painter and decorator father was frequently unemployed, her mother, a true Yorkshire lass, would keep their heads above water by taking in lodgers. Her childhood was divided between London and Yorkshire and she joyfully recounts the change of pace between life in the capital and the sleepy village of Haworth. Her home in Lavender Hill, where ‘the street was our playground’ (Rignall,24), was filled with visits to the Boat Race, The Grand music hall and the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.
In Haworth, Elizabeth led a ‘peculiarly solitary life’ (Rignall,71). A keen walker, she would be drawn to the moors, where ‘here on the hilltops with long views into the stark distance one was alone with majesty and eternity’ (Rignall,71). Being the historical home of the Brontë sisters, whose novels she read ‘countless times’ (Rignall,31), Elizabeth would go to the Brontë Falls and sit for hours on the “Brontë chair”, the same rock that Charlotte ‘if tradition be true had sat so often’ (Rignall,71). Weary of the changing world around her, Elizabeth states in her autobiography that ‘Haworth is not my Haworth any longer’ (Rignall,69). Growing distrustful of the tourists that flock to her childhood home, Elizabeth instead finds solace in her memories: ‘Maybe if I went there in winter I should recapture the spirit of the village of seventy years ago. But all through the summer now visitors with cars and in coaches and buses swarm over the old place I loved- and still love- so well’ (Rignall,69).
Not one to remain dispirited, Elizabeth demonstrates a jovial nature, reflecting on her life and embracing the regrets of her past: ‘I can look back now in unalloyed pleasure at both the failures and the small successes I have had’ (Rignall,129). Elizabeth’s autobiography also reveals her to be good-humoured and independent, if a little rebellious at times: ‘if there were any wrong-doing Lizzie Rignall would be the first one questioned’ (Rignall,74). Her ambitious streak carried her through low points in her life, so that when she failed her degree in English and French, she still strived to become a teacher. Although she never married, Elizabeth was forced to conceal her relationship with Bob, ‘the great love of my life’ (Rignall,103), due to job security and the fear of society’s denouncing views on female ‘”immorality”‘ (Rignall,103).
In Elizabeth’s eyes ‘there were no class-distinctions’ (Rignall, 65), so that even when her family became relatively comfortable, buying a house in a respectable neighbourhood, Elizabeth’s working-class roots were never a source of shame. Yet that is not to say that her duty in supporting the family did not stifle her own prospects, such as when she was forced to decline the job offers that came flooding in after her committed war work in a department of the Ministry of Munitions: ‘not one offered me a starting salary that would have enabled me to continue to contribute to the education of the two younger children or to help finance my mother’s housekeeping. So with the utmost anguish I had to turn them all down’ (Rignall,93).
Elizabeth’s account shows her to be a light-hearted, determined woman, whose vivid life comes flooding back in memories from All So Long Ago.
Rignall, Elizabeth,All So Long Ago, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:586
The Grand music hall (Accessed: 24/10/15)
Haworth Moor (Accessed: 24/10/15)